ôô

Stuff You Should Know: Doughnut or Donut?

Hosts of the popular podcast (and book by the same name) Stuff You Should Know Josh Clark and Chuck Bryant discuss everything donuts. Or is it doughnuts? 

By
Josh Clark and Chuck Bryant
10-minute read

There is a famous deleted scene that didn’t make it into Pulp Fiction where Mia Wallace (Uma Thurman) interviews Vincent Vega (John Travolta) with a video camera while he waits to take her to dinner at Jack Rabbit Slims. 

Mia says that on important topics there are only two ways a person can answer, and how they answer tells you who they are. “For instance, there are only two kinds of people in the world,” she says, “Beatles people and Elvis people. Now Beatles people can like Elvis, and Elvis people can like the Beatles, but nobody likes them both equally. Somewhere, you have to make a choice, and that choice tells you who you are.”1

What Mia is saying—or rather, what Quentin Tarantino is saying through her—is that for all the shades of gray in the world, when it comes right down to it, the important stuff is black and white. You see it in politics—Left vs. Right—you see it in music—Beatles vs. Elvis—you see it in religion—Catholic vs. Protestant, Shiite vs. Sunni—and you see it in . . . doughnuts?! Or is it donuts? 

From the spelling, to how they’re made, to the variety of flavors, to the best brand, do(ugh)nuts are a study in duality.

See there, it starts right out of the gate with this, what is perhaps the greatest tasty sweet treat. From the spelling, to how they’re made, to the variety of flavors, to the best brand, do(ugh)nuts 2 are a study in duality.

DOUGHNUT VERSUS DONUT

Dough has been fried in oil and sprinkled with sweet, sugary goodness by countless cultures since at least the time of Ancient Greece and Ancient Rome,3 if not even earlier with prehistoric Native American societies.4 But the first appearance of the term “doughnut” doesn’t occur until the turn of the nineteenth century—and it appears as doughnut, not donut—in the appendix of an 1803 English cookbook that featured American recipes. It then appears in a satirical novel by Washington Irving in 1809, called A History of New York, in which his description of early life under Dutch control includes the description of “balls of sweetened dough, fried in hog’s fat, called doughnuts or olykoeks.”5

Buy Now

As an Amazon Associate and a Bookshop.org Affiliate, QDT earns from qualifying purchases.

Most early doughnuts were just strips or balls of dough, but in the mid-nineteenth century a New England ship captain named Hanson Gregory came up with the idea of putting holes in the middle of them. His mother Elizabeth had been in the habit of making doughnuts with lemon rind and warm spices like cinnamon and nutmeg that she would liberate from her son’s cargo. She would put hazelnuts and walnuts in the center, where the dough was least likely to cook all the way through—making them very literal “dough nuts”—and give them to her son and his crew for their long stretches at sea. Eventually, Hanson one-upped his mother’s culinary inventiveness and started punching holes in the center of the doughnuts with the round top of a tin pepper box, creating their now-traditional ring shape for the first time.

What inspired Hanson to do this? Was he just bored? Some say he was being frugal with ingredients, which honestly doesn’t make much sense. Others say getting rid of the undercooked center made them easier to eat and digest. Maybe he didn’t like nuts? Then there is the legend that one day he stabbed a doughnut onto the spoked handle of his ship’s wheel, either because he needed both hands to control the ship during a storm or he wanted his snack easily accessible while standing at the bridge. Being a sailor, the ability to tell tall tales is as important as reading nautical charts, so it’s likely that both versions of that story are apocryphal.6 Nonetheless! In 1947, on the 100th anniversary of his “discovery,” Hanson’s hometown of Rockport, Maine, put up a plaque honoring him as the man who “first invented the hole in the donut.” 

Notice the spelling. “Donut” originally began appearing in the late 1800s as a contraction of the longer, traditional spelling,7 and became more widespread in the 1920s, especially with bakeries—presumably because three extra letters can take up a lot of space on small storefront windows. “Donut” would pick up real steam only a few years after Captain Gregory’s confectionary contribution was memorialized, with the founding of Dunkin’ Donuts in 19508 by a 34-year-old Boston man named William Rosenberg. Rosenberg had built a sizable mobile catering business after World War II to serve local factory workers and had come to realize that the bulk of his sales came from two items: doughnuts and coffee. So he opened a shop, originally called “Open Kettle,” that was dedicated to selling those two wonderful things.9 Rosenberg eventually renamed it and the business became a quick success. Over the next few decades Dunkin’ Donuts would expand rapidly across the Eastern Seaboard, and the spelling of “donuts” along with it. 

Mostly though, “donut” is a great example of the American preference for simplifying the spelling of commonly used words. It’s a longstanding cause that has been taken up throughout American history by luminaries like Benjamin Franklin, Noah Webster (the Daryl Hall of Merriam-Webster),10 Melvil Dewey (of the Dewey Decimal System), President Teddy Roosevelt (of the Presidents), and the robber baron Andrew Carnegie (of the Mind-Bogglingly Wealthy Strike-Breakers),11 who went so far as to co-found and fund the Simplified Spelling Board in 1906, which counted among its earliest membership ranks people like Dewey, Mark Twain, and the publisher Henry Holt.12 

Still, “doughnut” remains the preferred spelling. It’s used in print nearly two-to-one, even in American publications. Why that is the case isn’t entirely clear, since most dictionaries allow for “donut” as an acceptable alternative spelling. It’s possible that many people view “donut” as more of a trademark name, with a capital D, a la Dunkin’ Donuts, though your guess is as good as ours. As the great William Safire put it in one of his classic New York Times “On Language” columns: “those of us among the elderly . . . spell the circular pastries doughnuts because they are made of dough, not do.”13

YEAST VERSUS CAKE

Doughnuts are indeed made of dough and not do, though different doughnuts have different doughs that do different things, about that we do not doubt. The main difference is between yeast doughnuts and cake doughnuts. Yeasties, as no one else has ever called them ever, use yeast to make the dough rise, whereas cake doughnuts use chemical leaveners like baking powder and baking soda. 

As a result, yeast doughnuts are light and pillowy. They are typically bigger than cake doughnuts and have a smoother, satiny surface,14 which allows them to take glazing and chocolate coating much better. The honeycomb structure of their insides—created by air bubbles from the proofing yeast—also makes them ideal for filling. If you’re eating a jelly- or a cream-filled doughnut, you are eating a yeast doughnut. Of course, the pinnacle of the yeast doughnut variety is the Original Glazed made by Krispy Kreme (more below). 

Cake doughnuts, on the other hand, are denser—dare we say, cakier—and better for dunking in your coffee. This dunking method was immortalized by Clark Cable’s journalist character in the 1934 romantic comedy It Happened One Night, when he taught the high society object of his affection, played by Claudette Colbert, how to dunk her doughnut just like working-class folk.15 The biggest advantages with cake doughnuts are twofold. First, they can come in a variety of flavors, running through the doughnut itself in wondrous veins of precious gems of taste—like cherry and blueberry and oh! apple cider.16 Second, once the dough is combined and formed, they’re ready for the fryer. Yeast doughnuts really only come in one flavor (yeast?) and need time to proof before they get dropped into the oil.

How badly do you want a do(ugh)nut right now?

All the earliest doughnuts and doughnut ancestors were yeast doughnuts, for the simple reason that baking with yeast goes back 5,000 years and baking powder wasn’t developed until the 1840s—well after the Dutch came over with their oily cakes and unwittingly began the American doughnut revolution. It was baking powder that turned the revolution into an evolution, however, accelerating the doughnut’s ascent to the summit of American snack food. There is nothing more American, after all, than being able to make a lot of something faster and cheaper, and that’s precisely what chemical leaveners like baking powder did with the cake doughnut. 

TASTE OF HOME

The ease with which doughnuts could now be made increased their popularity over the course of the nineteenth century, but they grew into a signature American staple during World War I—in France, of all places—when the Salvation Army set up camp wherever American troops were stationed. The camps were staffed with female volunteers who made cake doughnuts by the bushel and often delivered them directly to the front lines, hot out of the frying oil, in an effort to give soldiers a taste of home.17 The women came to be known as “doughnut lassies” and the campaign they led was such an overwhelming success that other aid organizations like the Red Cross and the Y(!)M(!)C(!)A(!) followed their lead, further imprinting doughnuts on the memories of America’s fighting men.18

In just the United States, over 10 billion donuts are made each year, which comes to about thirty donuts per American citizen.

When American troops returned stateside after the war ended, they brought their taste for doughnuts with them. Demand was so high that doughnuts were regularly being served in places like theaters, but things really took off after an entrepreneurially-minded Russian refugee named Adolph Levitt invented the first doughnut machine. He called it the “Wonderful Almost Human Automatic Doughnut Machine” (for real) and put the first one in the window of his Harlem bakery. Lickety split, doughnuts began popping up in bakeries and delis, at festivals and county fairs all over the country. Levitt was even able to wholesale his doughnuts alongside sales of his machine, building a business worth over $25 million in the middle of the Great Depression.19 

Doughnuts’ rise continued through the ’30s. In 1934, the same year Clark Gable started dunkin’ up a storm on the silver screen, they were named the “Hit Food of the Century of Progress” at the World’s Fair in Chicago. Even more monumentally, that year nineteen-year-old Vernon Rudolph opened the very first Krispy Kreme Doughnut Company store in Nashville, Tennessee, with his uncle Ishmael, who’d purchased a yeast  doughnut recipe from a New Orleans chef with the whimsical name of Joe LeBeau. A couple years later, Rudolph would move to Winston-Salem, North Carolina, and open his own solo Krispy Kreme shop, establishing it as the official founding headquarters of the doughnut business.20 By the end of the decade, Rudolph would be wholesaling to grocery stores and bakeries all over North Carolina, and within twenty years Krispy Kreme would be a veritable empire, with twenty-nine factories spread across twelve states, setting up the Doughnut vs Donut battle that Dunkin’ Donuts would eventually win.21

A year later, in 1938, the Salvation Army started National Doughnut Day, celebrated on the first Friday of June, in part to help those suffering during the Depression, and in part to honor the Doughnut Lassies on the twentieth anniversary of the end of World War I.

Today, Krispy Kreme and Dunkin’ Donuts have grown to several thousand locations, not just across the United States but around the world—Dunkin’ Donuts alone has over 5,000 locations and sells donuts in thirty-seven different countries. In just the United States, over 10 billion donuts are made each year, which comes to about thirty donuts per American citizen—more than that if you leave out babies and the gluten intolerant.22 With each donut averaging around 300 calories, that’s three trillion donut calories a year! Or 1.2 billion days’ worth of the recommended daily allowance for calories. It’s simple math: America loves doughnuts. We rest our case.

To some, what makes doughnuts quintessentially American is the fact that they are deep-fried hunks of dough with little to no nutritional value that get scarfed down by the dozen, which is true. But they’re also descended from a long historical lineage that crosses cultural lines and includes not just ancient Romans and Greeks, not just prehistoric Native Americans and colonial Dutch (olykoek), but also ancient Chinese (youtiao), medieval Arab and twelfth-century Jewish societies (sufganiyot), along with German (cruller), French (beignet), Polish (paczki), and Okinawan (andagi) cooks from across the centuries. 

Whether you’re a doughnut lover or a donut lover, a yeastie or a cakey, a Krispy Kremer for life or you ride or die for the Dunk, doughnuts are one of the few things in life where neither side is wrong and both sides win—a kind of duality that is as unique to doughnuts as doughnuts are to America. 

Footnotes: 

1. Exactly what your choice says about you remains as much a mystery as what was in Marsellus Wallace’s stolen briefcase.

2. We haven’t trademarked this spelling yet, but we’re considering it.

3. Made-Up Fun Fact: Julius Caesar blew out a big mouthful of half-chewed fried dough when he was stabbed in the Senate.

4. It may be the reason humans exist.

5. Olykoeks is Dutch for “oily cakes.” It was they of the tulip and the windmill who brought the food over to New York back when the city was still called New Amsterdam. (Why’d they change it? We can’t say. People just liked it better that way.)

6. That first ship’s wheel story seems particularly suspect, since there’s probably never been a human in history who didn’t just shove the entire doughnut in their mouth when they suddenly needed the use of both hands. It’s like our seventh sense.

7. Haha, “do’nut.”

8. Dunkin’ Donuts is actually a contraction of two words (Dunking and Doughnuts). It would contract again, this time from two words to one, when the company shamefully shed “Donuts” from their name in 2018, to simply become Dunkin’.

9. Could have ended up as Op’n K’ttl’.

10. Your kiss is on his list, right between “kismet” and “kist.”

11. See chapter 17.

12. We need to do an episode on the simplified spelling movement.

13. Bear in mind that William Safire was arguably the pope of the prescriptivists. The Onion once ran a headline that read: “William Safire orders two Whoppers Junior.”

14. How badly do you want a do(ugh)nut right now?

15. In 1941, the famous manners expert Emily Post called dunking your doughnut “as bad an example of table manners as can be found.” She and William Safire were probably secretly married.

16. How about now?

17. This is not where the nickname “doughboy” comes from. We thought of that too. Turns out it’s unclear where the name originated—possibly from the clay they rolled along the piping on their uniforms to keep it white—but the doughnuts the soldiers were fed doesn’t seem to factor into it. 

18. In World War II, the Doughnut Lassies were replaced by the Doughnut Dollies, though their role was exactly the same. By either name, they were angels on Earth.

19. The Westegg Inflation Calculator says that’s more than $475 million today!

20. A year later, in 1938, the Salvation Army started National Doughnut Day, celebrated on the first Friday of June, in part to help those suffering during the Depression, and in part to honor the Doughnut Lassies on the twentieth anniversary of the end of World War I.

21. When the world has more doughnuts and more donuts, does anybody really lose?

22. A baby eating a do(ugh)nut is a hilarious thought.

EXCERPTED FROM STUFF YOU SHOULD KNOW. COPYRIGHT © 2020 BY JOSH CLARK AND CHUCK BRYANT. EXCERPTED BY PERMISSION OF FLATIRON BOOKS, A DIVISION OF MACMILLAN PUBLISHERS. NO PART OF THIS EXCERPT MAY BE REPRODUCED OR REPRINTED WITHOUT PERMISSION IN WRITING FROM THE PUBLISHER.